Ever since President Bush announced last fall that the United States would seek to negotiate a lasting security agreement with Iraq, the Democrats in Washington have insisted that any such accord would be a treaty and, therefore, ought to be submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification.
But it's starting look more and more like the proposed treaty won't ever see the light of day. Why? Because the Iraqis themselves don't want it.
At an extraordinary hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday, members of the Iraqi parliament hand-delivered a letter to members of Congress that rejected the idea of a US-Iraq agreement unless the United States agrees to a specific timetable to get out of Iraq. The letter was signed by a majority of the 270-member parliament, reflecting a broad consensus among Iraqi factions. Said the letter:
"The majority of Iraqi representatives strongly reject any military-security, economic, commercial, agricultural, investment or political agreement with the United States that is not linked to clear mechanisms that obligate the occupying American military forces to fully withdraw from Iraq."
Without a US-Iraq accord, the presence of American troops in Iraq has no legal basis after December 31, 2008. Currently, the US forces in Iraq are there under the authority of a United Nations Security Council resolution that expires on that date. Both the United States and the UN have ruled out renewing that authority for another year.
If Washington and Baghdad fail to work out a treaty that legalizes the occupation, it is conceivable that the Bush administration, in its last few weeks, could go back to the UN, hat in hand, and beg Moscow and Beijing to authorize an extension of the UN authority. But that would be embarassing in the extreme, and both Russia and China would probably extract some major concessions in exchange for not using their veto. That would be seen as a diplomatic fiasco for the United States. Worst case: either Russia or China veto the extension, throwing the occupation of Iraq into legal limbo. In that case, the Iraqi government would have no choice but to demand an immediate and total withdrawal.
To avoid that scenario, it's entirely possible that the Bush Administration, sometime this summer, will force the hapless regime of Prime Minister Maliki to submit to a US diktat on a US-Iraq accord. Even though Maliki is under tremendous pressure from nearly all Iraqi factions not to accept a humiliating, US-imposed treaty, he might decide that he has no choice. But if Maliki signs the accord, and ignores the opposition from parliament, he would instantly lose whatever remaining credibility he has left as an Iraqi leader. That would plunge Iraq into a devastating political crisis. It would probably revive the Sunni-led resistance and inflame the Shia-led, anti-American forces grouped around Muqtada al-Sadr. Violence, and American casualties, would spike on the eve of the US election. Not a pleasant scenario.
If, on the other hand, Maliki submits the treaty -- whose content is still not known -- to the parliament, it's very likely that both Sunni and Shia nationalists and some pro-Iranian parties will overwhelmingly reject it. That will nullify the accord, forcing the United States back to the UN.
None of these scenarios are particularly appetizing for the White House.
Writing in The Independent, Patrick Cockburn provides a glimpse of what's in the draft of the treaty:
"Under the terms of the new treaty, the Americans would retain the long-term use of more than 50 bases in Iraq. American negotiators are also demanding immunity from Iraqi law for US troops and contractors, and a free hand to carry out arrests and conduct military activities in Iraq without consulting the Baghdad government."
Cockburn suggests that at least some of the Iraqi defiance might be for show, and that in the end the Iraqis will sign the accord because they have little choice. But if they do, it could make Iraq's already violent and unstable politics far worse.
In the end, congressional Democrats might never get a chance to vote on a US-Iraq treaty. Which might be a good thing. Because while Iraq's parliament is overwhelmingly opposed to it, America's own pliant parliament -- namely, the US Congress -- will probably approve the damn thing.